Season Preview - 2019 - Top 10 Stars

Wiebe: Your guide to maximizing your consumption of #MLSisBack

#MLSisBack. Give thanks and prepare yourself for 36 hours of wall-to-wall MLS.

How should I navigate MLS opening weekend?

First off, if you haven't done it yet: Get the app – it'll come in handy. As for prep, you can start with (and likely never finish) Matt Doyle’s 10,000-word treatise on Major League Soccer in 2019. Analysis of all 24 teams, broken down by tier, and Dune references I’ll never get but enjoy all the same.

You can go full-hog or cherry pick and jump around with MLSsoccer.com’s comprehensive 2019 Season Preview. All the offseason moves, all the projected XIs, all the storylines. Plus, 24 video previews from the studio.

You can listen to/watch Extratime driven by Continental. We previewed every single team in February, then dropped two predictions shows this week. We’re now on YouTube as well as iTunes/anywhere you listen to podcasts. I’m biased, but there’s no better companion to the MLS season. Shows are available at 5 pm ET on Mondays and Thursdays.

Or you can just settle in on Saturday when coverage starts at noon (#MLSisBack preview show, see full schedule) and mainline 36 or so hours of soccer. TV info is here, and I can’t recommend ESPN+ enough, both for the live soccer and "We Are LAFC" documentary that I’m quite literally binging as I write this.

Now, let’s be realistic, 99 percent of you won’t watch every game. Family, friends, work, obligations you can’t beg out of, sleep and other such trivialities make it near impossible. No shame in that.

The other one percent will be at the MLS studios in Midtown Manhattan. Come 10:30 pm ET on Sunday night, when all the results are in, we’ll go LIVE on MLS channels with the first of many Matchday Central wrap shows to come this year. All the highlights, interviews, and analysis you need to synthesize every game. Join us.

What players will I be watching closest?

Here are three, just because “all of them” apparently isn’t an acceptable answer.

Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) – FC Dallas are finally making the transition to full-on #PlayYourKids, whether at the first-team level or down in USL League 1 with an eye toward the future. Pomykal (above) won the attacking midfield job. I’m curious to see how he plays the position and how an FC Dallas squad flying under the radar comes together under new head coach Luchi Gonzalez.

Alexandru Mitrita (NYCFC) – He commanded the third biggest incoming transfer fee in MLS history. He is, nominally at least, replacing a legend in David Villa. Will Mitrita live up to his price tag? I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve only seen him play preseason ball, which included some special moments. Time for the real thing.

Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes) – The man could set the all-time MLS goalscoring record. His career is inspirational. His role with the Earthquakes is an open question. Here’s hoping Wondo does it at home, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

Full strength or squad rotation for Champions League?

Tigres, Monterrey, Santos Laguna and Independiente La Chorrera await Houston, Atlanta, New York and Sporting KC next week in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. The Red Bulls and Dynamo host on Tuesday, while Sporting and Atlanta will head south for Wednesday night’s games.

Which managers will rest players and which will attempt to build rhythm and momentum through continuity? Here’s a guess.

Houston Dynamo – Backline the same to build reps. Rest Juan David Cabezas. Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas (below) come off the the bench if needed. Dynamo are the only club who play at home in MLS then at home in CCL. They, more than others, can afford to keep around half the starters on the field.

Atlanta United – Frank de Boer has a big decision to make. Given the Five Stripes’ talent, I’d sit my best players on the bench in D.C., knowing a couple road goals in Monterrey could change the complexion of that series. De Boer said earlier in the preseason that rotation would be key, and I don’t expect him to render those comments moot. 

New York Red Bulls – Red Bulls II time. You never want to give away points in conference, but Chris Armas knows the reserves can get the job done. Remember last March’s 4-0 whooping of Portland, also known as the Ben Mines Game? With travel back and forth from Columbus to navigate and Santos Laguna posing a tough test, better to save your legs for Tuesday.

Sporting Kansas City – Sub out starters early and rotate. They’re going for it in CCL, and we all saw what happened to Toronto in Panama. Plus, this ain’t bad, and it’s a road game anyway.

Most likely eyebrow-raising results?

Remember when the Dynamo shellacked Atlanta United on opening day this time last year? That sure raised eyebrows, even if it didn’t portend much of anything in the long run.

The two most likely candidates for a repeat of that result in Week 1 are home teams with big expectations and out-of-conference opponents that have, so far, been easy to overlook. To be clear, I am not predicting upsets, just laying out a scenario in which they could happen.

Chicago Fire defeat LA Galaxy (8 pm ET; FS1 in USA; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada)

In the shadow of David Beckham’s new statue outside Dignity Health Sports Park, a Galaxy squad in the midst of some roster turmoil (Ola Kamara transferred, Gio Dos Santos gone) throws it back to 2018.

The midfield lacks balance, the backline makes individual mistakes, the Fire pounce via Aleksandar Katai and Nemanja Nikolic and LA’s home woes from last season carry over. A moment or two of brilliance from Zlatan’s (below) makes the nightly highlight shows, but the Fire take the points.

Would you really be all that surprised?

FC Cincinnati over Seattle Sounders (10 pm ET on FS1 in USA; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada)

Did you know Fanendo Adi has eight goals in less than 800 minutes against the Sounders in his MLS career?

LAFC did it last year in their very first game, so why can’t Cincy? Well, there’s a gap in attacking talent, you might be saying. You’d be right, but Alan Koch’s potent counterattack and set-piece arsenal have the potential to be scary.

Probably not gonna happen – Seattle are stacked – but what if it did?

What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?

I’m cheating because it’s opening weekend, but I promise to stick to one from here on out. Let me know what you’ll be watching in the comments.

Philadelphia Union vs Toronto FC - Sat, March 2 at 1:00 pm ET

Four words: Marco Fabian. High press.

The Union picked up the most points in their history in 2018. They played pretty, made a U.S. Open Cup final and locked in a playoff spot before Decision Day presented by AT&T. The club’s developmental pyramid and on-field ethos paid off in a real way. It was a good season.

So what did incoming sporting director Ernst Tanner do? He crumpled up the possession style from 2018 and chucked it in the tactical waste bin. The Union are a pressing team now, and the players and coaching staff must get with the program ASAP.

Preseason results suggest they’re well on their way, but I want to see how the 4-4-2 diamond looks in a game where points are on the line. I don’t need an excuse to watch Fabian, either. Plus, Toronto could have Jozy Altidore back and are smarting from an embarrassing CCL exit.

Did I mention it’s the first game of the season? That ought to be reason enough to watch.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Minnesota United FC - Sat, March 2 at 6:00 pm ET

There’s a theme here: change.

Marc Dos Santos wowed us on Extratime down at the MLS Combine. He’s passionate, experienced and confident in his abilities to execute on his vision for the Whitecaps. That vision included turning over damn near the entire squad from a year ago.

Now, time to see the first glimpses of that vision in action. Which signings will be immediate hits? Which will take time to adapt? How will his ‘Caps team play and how will that differ from the direct, pragmatic approach employed to varying degrees of success by Carl Robinson?

On the other side, Minnesota went out and got two of MLS’s best at their respective positions: Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso. The success of the Loons’ season rides in large part on how the pair performs. This is a playoff bubble game already. Tune in for Darwin Quintero and a first look at Designated Player Jan Gregus.

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